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Category: Poetry

Martina Hefter

Es könnte auch schön werden
[It could also be nice]


The dance of the half-dead, very lively

Death and aging have always been major themes in literature. But literature has only recently begun to address the last phase before dying, a phase that has become increasingly longer, sometimes against the will of those affected, thanks to geriatric medicine and technology. Apart from the works of Samuel Beckett, whose reframing of old age and disability as metaphors for the condition humaine has remained unsurpassed, realistic prose seems best suited for representing the mental and physical decline of a person, a situation where one is confronted with helplessness, the need for care as well as the loss of autonomy and memory. Recently, however, the poets, or the courageous amongst them, have also ventured into this difficult terrain.
In the German-speaking world, Martina Hefter (1965–) has adopted something of a pioneering role. In her new book of poems It could be nice, she describes the daily routine and atmosphere of a nursing home from her own experience with a case in her family. Or rather: she seeks and finds the poetic means of expression for the inevitable, the supposedly unspeakable, which most of us fear and therefore pretend as if it doesn’t exist. One particularity of the book emerges from the fact that some of the poems (or part of the single long poem, depending on your perspective) are meant to be texts for the stage. Martina Hefter, who left her native Allgäu region for Leipzig in the nineties and who published three novels before her four books of poetry, is not only a writer but also a dancer who works at the intersection between movement and language, performing her poetry.
The text in the book is itself dominated by relentless movement between the different pitches Hefter probes in order to create an extreme experience and not just represent one. That is, she attempts to master the existential shock through linguistic form. Balance, which is also essential for dance, has to be repeatedly reestablished between the strong emotions and the sober reflections, between empathy and self-preservation, fascination and defense. There is, on the one hand, the autobiographical situatedness in reality (the exhausting visits to the bedridden mother-in-law) as well as the cool observations regarding the routine in the nursing home where comedy is never far off. And, on the other hand, there is the devotion to one’s own imagination, which runs amok in such depressing surroundings. These two modes of perception are like two ballet bars, where the lyrical subject seeks refuge, sometimes in the slang of slam poetry and others in the pathos of melancholy. Often it is sarcastic but it is always with love.
The perspectives, however, bleed together: creatures from dreams, ghosts and devils populate reality’s macabre locales, the cat at the nursing home relates its impressions, and a mummy from a glacier speaks to the inhabitants. Gestures of devotion to others and the silent presence of endurance repeatedly provide comforting moments; a liberating anarchy unfolds in “half-dead conversations.” Full of liveliness, Martina Hefter’s poetic experiment is a kind of dance in the anteroom of the realm of the dead. And her lyrical idiom, which is very much of its time, is clear and malleable enough in its ever-shifting illuminations to allow for coherent translations into other languages.

Translated by Shane Anderson

Book cover It could also be nice

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.